Chauvet, Use of Genetic Resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity

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Chauvet, Michel, 2001. Book review of : Use of Genetic Resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 48 : 316-317.


Lesser William, 1998. Sustainable Use of Genetic Resources under the Convention on Biological Diversity. Exploring Access and Benefit Sharing Issues. Oxford, CAB International. 218 p.

The author offers a personal contribution, in the field of applied economics, to the implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Very prudently, he expresses the limits of his work in his preface:

The most I can hope for is to provide some insights into cause and effect [...] I do not propose that countries [...] should seek to commercialize sustainably their genetic resources. That is their decision. Rather, [...] I explore means of implementation and their consequences. [...] Such a pragmatic perspective is often missing from the clouds of words engulfing the Convention process.(p. viii)

Eight chapters consider in detail the issues of Access, Sovereign Rights, Valuation and Equity, Prior Informed Consent, Ex Situ Collections, Traditional Knowledge, Technology Transfer, and the role of Intellectual Property Rights in Technology Transfer. For each issue, the author introduces the relevant wording in the different Articles of the CBD, comments about the possible scope and options for implementation, presents the existing legal and operational tools at national and international levels, and offers his own proposals. For those having experienced the ‘clouds of words’ around the CBD, this book appears as one of the best introductions to most controversial issues of this Convention. It helps to clarify some concepts that are not part of the usual background of breeders and genetic resources curators, but will deeply affect their work. As an example of the innovative proposals of the author, he advocates “a system which separates the ownership of the genetic resources from the ownership of the knowledge of its use” (p. 127). The interest of such a system would be to reconcile the free access to the resources and some form of control on the knowledge acquired (by traditional communities as well as by breeders). Nevertheless, the limits of the book lead to some frustration. Some assumptions are taken for granted, when they should have been discussed. A basic one consists in the supposed market value of genetic resources. The author affirms this at various places:

With the advent of biotechnology, intellectual property rights and the CBD, the conditions are in place for the establishment of efficient and equitable market mechanisms (p. 12).
Technology, including biotechnology, enhances the commercial value of genetic resources. Many mechanisms underlie this increase in economic value, including the option to transfer genes directly among unrelated species; the speed-up of techniques for screening materials for possible medicinal effects (p. 40).

What is true is that technology allows to create commercial value out of biotechnological inventions in more and more fields. But gene transfer, by allowing the breeder to use distant genes, decreases the value of individual genetic resources. Previous breeders had to look within a particular genepool for rare genetic resources already combining a set of characters, and such genotypes, by being rare, had a very important value for their owners, when characterized. Now the options are so broad that the limits no longer lie in the raw genetic resources themselves, but in our capacity to create knowledge. With genomics, specialists think it is enough to know the genome of one species in a family (Arabidopsis for Cruciferae, rice for Gramineae) in order to transfer their genes to any other member of the family. As far as pharmaceutical screening is concerned, a similar situation is appearing. Companies are ready to invest a lot of money in automatic and computerized systems of screening and molecule building. They can screen very rapidly huge collections of samples. Access to rare species is not a real issue. Collections


need only to be diversified, what can be achieved very simply by extracting DNA from soil samples in their backyards.

As a conclusion, technology allows to extract commercial value from any living species, but we cannot predict from which one in particular. If there is a market for genetic resources, the price for an individual resource will fall very low. At the same time, the costs of transaction will rise with the implementation of the CBD.

Underlying this option to give genetic resources and biodiversity the status of trade commodities is “the general expectation that what is perceived as having economic value tends to be conserved” (p. 5). This assumption may be true, but needs to be further discussed. If under ‘economic value’, we include option and existence values, why not. But in the book, in line with the mainstream of the CBD, ‘economic value’ is mostly restricted to ‘market value’. This assumption that market mechanisms can solve all the problems of mankind is typical of ultraliberalism, of which the CBD can be analyzed as a late avatar. This philosophy is not shared by everybody, and the conservation movement in many countries still thinks in terms of a heritage approach.

Unfortunately, the author mentions only the heritage approach in his historical introduction: “Informally, the materials were treated as the ‘common heritage of mankind’, but formally it was in 1983 with the FAO International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources when the label of a ‘common heritage of mankind’ was applied” (p. 19).

This statement is commonly accepted, but in my opinion, it is inaccurate. Genetic resources were freely exchanged between scientists and breeders simply because they had no legal status. As lawyers say, they were res nullius. The introduction of the concept of ‘common heritage of mankind’ in 1983 was proposed by countries in development,and has never been really developed, because the International Undertaking has not really been implemented, and was immediately contradicted by the negotiation of the CBD. The example of the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO shows that national sovereignty can be combined with it. The temples of Nubia are under the sovereignty of Egypt, but their recognition as part of the World Heritage allowed the Egyptian government to ask for financial and technical support of the international community when the building of the Assuan dam led to their translocation.

Specialists of crop genetic resources will also fail to find in the book detailed arguments showing that “plant genetic resources for food and agriculture” (PGRFA) share distinct characteristics that are the reasons why the Commission of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO) is currently negotiating a revised International Undertaking. Although the author is known to have participated in the debate as an expert to IPGRI, the examples he takes often come from other sectors, such as pharmaceuticals. This lack of recognition of the specificity of PGRFA is typical of much of the CBD, but has led to a great deal of confusion.

In conclusion, this book is a good introduction to some of the major issues of the CBD. The author expresses a lot of sound comments, and expresses some doubts about the applicability of many proposals. Nevertheless, he seems to refrain himself from going too far in his conclusions, and to restrict his role to accompany and implement decisions taken by politicians and diplomats.

Michel Chauvet, Montpellier